Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mirror, Mirror: Oculus is a Wild Ride through a Warped Reality

Co-produced by Blumhouse and WWE Films, Oculus is the latest effort from Absentia writer/director Mike Flanagan. The film premiered at TIFF in September and has had a successful run on the festival circuit, earning itself  a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With the combined star power of Flanagan and Blumhouse Productions behind it, as well as two female stars who bring immense nerd-cred (Doctor Who's Karen Gillan and Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff), horror fans have been chomping at the bit to catch this one on the big screen. I myself stood in line for almost three hours with a group of other wristband-less fanboys and girls at South By Southwest to get a look at this one. Unfortunately, this meant that I watched the entire film from the neck-breaking angle afforded by the front row, far stage left, but it was nevertheless a great little film.

Oculus tells the story of a sister and brother (Gillan and Brendon Thwaites) whose lives were nearly undone by the tragic murder of their mother at the hands of their father. In fact, young Tim (Thwaites) was forced to kill their father, a decision for which he spent a decade in a psychiatric facility. The film picks up with Tim's release back into the care of his loving sister Kaylie, now an antiques dealer with a handsome fiancée and an almost-perfect life. But while Tim was working hard to forget the events of their childhood, Kaylie never let go of the notion that their father's actions were the work of a supernatural power, and that the source of that power was an ornate antique mirror that hung in his office.

The events of the film take place over the course of one harrowing day in which Kaylie and Tim set out to prove the mirror's terrible power and clear their late father's name. Using her position dealing in antiques, Kaylie is able to get the mirror back to their childhood home one last time and set up a series of clever experiments in the hopes of catching some of the mirror's sinister effects on camera. These effects include killing houseplants, causing lights to burn out unexpectedly, and, of course, influencing the actions of the two siblings. But they get more than they bargained for when they come to the realization that the mirror has an uncanny ability to warp reality, and soon, they are not safe from the mirror, or themselves.

The pacing of Oculus is superb, flitting back and forth between the present day, flashbacks from the siblings' childhood, and Kaylie's recountings of the mirror's dark history. As the mirror grows more and more powerful, characters and viewers alike lose track of which events are real, and which have been engineered by the mirror to drive Tim and Kaylie closer to the brink of insanity. The film's tagline, 'You see what it wants you to see,' could not be a more apt description of the experience of watching Oculus. In the end, past and present begin to merge into one, and our protagonists seem doomed to repeat the monstrous events of the past. Sackhoff and Rory Cochran round out the very real and sympathetic cast of characters as the two parents, seen only in flashbacks, and James Lafferty also stars as Kaylie's well-meaning fiancée.

Throughout its 105-minute runtime, Oculus maintains the atmosphere of a classic haunted house film, though in this story, the ghosts are not what our characters should be worried about. Oculus delves deep into the darkest acts of which man is capable, and poses some interesting questions about the nature of insanity and man's responsibility for his actions. This film delivers on classic jump scares, and Flanagan lets the tension build up to the point of edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting nerves until the very last scene. There's also just a touch of well-appointed gore that drives home the film's most shocking moments.

Oculus opens in wide release next Friday. Check your local theatre's listings and help give this one an opening weekend for the record books.

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